Rick Santorum: The Candidate Who Would Be King

As we head into the South Carolina primary where former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum may still have a shot at the GOP nomination, it’s worth recalling what Sen. Santorum had to say about libertarians and others who favor limited government during an interview with NPR in August 2005:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a Libertarianish right. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. That is not how traditional conservatives view the world. There is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

This has rightly riled many libertarians, who insist that the “radical individualism” derided by Santorum was the basis for the American experiment. But libertarians should really be thanking Rick Santorum. He’s provided us with a valuable reminder that far from being a limited government ally of libertarianism, traditional conservatism is actually inimical to libertarian principles. Traditional conservatism was America’s first statist, big government ideology.

What we call modern conservatism is actually a form of right-wing populism, neither wholly conservative nor wholly libertarian. Modern conservatism began as an attempt to fuse conservatism and libertarianism together into a potent political force to combat progressive social democracy. This effort was a conscious one at first. William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Frank Meyer worked together in the pages of the National Review to promote what Meyer called fusionism as the political way forward for the New Right. The fusionist project sought to unite conservatives and libertarians around principles of limited government, traditional morality, and anti-Communism. While fusionism was once a new and deliberate effort to fundamentally alter conservatism, it is now the definition of conservatism that most Americans take for granted.

Yet conservatism was not always defined in the fusionist context and still isn’t throughout much of Europe. At the beginning of the American experiment, traditional conservatism was a counterrevolutionary ideology that favored the authority and order of monarchy over the self-government and individual liberty of democracy. Traditional conservatives favored the interests of a wealthy, propertied elite and argued that should there be any democratic constraints on a monarch’s power those constraints should come only from this elite. Traditional conservatives agreed with Thomas Hobbes that autocracy was necessary to preserve order and prevent society from descending into a war of all against all. They argued that the divine right of kings trumped the consent of the governed. Traditional conservatives favored state-established religion, insisted upon state enforcement of Christian morality, and condoned slavery as part of the natural order.

Traditional conservatism had its advocates in the new American government following the ratification of the constitution. Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and to a large degree George Washington tried to adapt conservatism to the new American system of government. Hamilton, as Washington’s closest advisor, insisted upon a stronger executive branch than some of the constitutional framers had intended and a strong federal government with a central bank. Adams, for his part, advocated for a much more religious federal government than the First Amendment seemed to allow. Both favored the British monarchy over the French revolutionaries. Hamilton and Adams created the Federalist Party to advance their conservative ideas, while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the classical liberal Democratic-Republican Party to oppose them.

The Federalist Party’s statist conservatism ultimately contributed to its undoing. Elected president in 1796 following Washington’s two terms, John Adams tried his best to become the king that traditional conservatism demanded. He engaged in an undeclared naval Quasi-War with France. He imposed new property taxes to build a massive new army and navy. He used the Quasi-War as pretext to sign into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which virtually outlawed criticism of his administration. For these exercises in conservative authoritarianism Americans kicked Adams out of office, electing his Democratic-Republican opponent Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Even on his way out of office, Adams tried to stack the deck in favor of Federalist authoritarianism by packing the federal courts with “midnight judges” to fill vacancies created by the Judiciary Act of 1801. This, too, proved a failure, as his court-packing was undone by the Judiciary Act of 1802.

So when Rick Santorum says that the libertarian worldview “is not how traditional conservatives view the world,” believe him. Traditional conservatism is a statist, big government ideology that has been with us since before the American Revolution and which is still with us today. In a nutshell, traditional conservatives are those who still clamor for a king. And like John Adams before him, Rick Santorum is the candidate who would be king.

 
 


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